Entering the Ozarks of North Arkansas felt like coming home, a feeling that translated into a repeated theme throughout the weekend. Fall had officially arrived, with leaves falling, hills full of crimson maples and fading yellow oaks. The welcoming entrance was a one-way bridge across a creek that ended with a sign that read “You have now crossed the bridge into nostalgia.” It was all smiles from here on out.
Hillberry: The Harvest Moon Festival was held at the fairgrounds known as ‘The Farm’ in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. The weekend was made possible by Dead Head Productions partnering with the multitalented and progressive band, Railroad Earth. Capped at 3000 people, this soon turned into a party of familiar faces, new friends, and happy families.
Music was already rolling at 4 p.m. on Thursday, showcasing some local Arkansas flavor. While The Squarshers and Mountain Sprout commenced the dancing, Friends of the Phamily filled the tent stage. This huge band invited new members on stage for nearly every song, ranging from seven to ten members and showcasing a plethora of Grateful Dead songs. They started up with a jammed out “Cassidy,” and had everyone singing along to a smooth “Althea,” “Shakedown Street” and “Touch of Grey.” The left us with a quote, “The Phamily is sort of like the mafia, once you join you just can’t leave.” We were all in this together now. Rain started rolling in soon after that, giving everyone a minute to head to their dry and safe campgrounds and dream of the sublime weekend to come.
After a proper rainstorm, the Ozarks awoke to a cool breeze and fog, rolling in alongside some raw bluegrass. Arkansauce drew in the crowd with the classic mandolin, guitar, banjo, and bass combination. These local boys showed talent and brothership that can only seed from growing up and playing together. The crowd was getting into it as they sang along to the chorus, “Drinking Whiskey like it’s wine, spending money like its time.” Their music lifted the fog and we got our first view of sunshine, which would stay out the rest of the weekend. As the crowd rolled in, many participated in different workshops like Geo-Dome building, juggling, and a fun Frisbee session with some of the younger festival goers. Daily workshops gave this festival a very family oriented feel. The Travelin’ McCourys stepped up to the stage, lead by Ronnie and Rob, the sons of bluegrass country godfather, Del McCoury. Playing true tribute to their father, they carried on the family bluegrass tradition but with a very recognizable Nashville twist. Their unique version of “Let Her Go” by Passenger, had the whole crowd hand in hand. After a beautifully composed Greensky Bluegrass set, showcasing the classic Dylan song “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”, the festival was turning out to be full of familiar sing a longs, a powerful feeling in a crowd of 3000 people. It was then time to switch it up to the undeniable funk of The New Mastersounds, counterbalancing all the bluegrass with one of the most energetic sets of the weekend. The entire crowd was moving as the incredibly talented group from the UK seamlessly transitioned each song into the other. A late night Campfire set went on well into the morning, which took place at a small stage set up by a bonfire and a shrine to Jerry Garcia.
Saturday started off rocking with Dirtfoot, which turned out to be the talk of the festival. These guys were all over the place between gypsy jazz, old-time, country, punk and rock, dedicating one song to their mom, and the next to drinking whisky. Their energy was high and brought the crowd down to Louisiana, served with a repeated theme of “do what your heart tells you.” Fruition played a beautiful set showcasing their passionate vocal harmonies. With three vocalists, there was a soft relaxation that they shared with the crowd. Ending with a Beatles cover, “I Got a Feeling,” they gave many newcomers a certain feeling that they would be seeking this band out in the future. Elephant Revival came on next, creating some of the most special moments of the festival. They welcomed the breathtaking, full Harvest Moon to the stage as it crept over the horizon. Within the next few songs they payed tribute to it again, and the whole crowd howled as one with the band that has made the Earth a key influence to their sound. The only thing that could top that set was headliner Railroad Earth. Very composed, the band took up the entire stage, making their presence known as the conductors of the festival. Pulling out some old classics like “Elko” and “Long Way To Go,” they gave us just a taste of what was to come, having another headlining set the next night. Appreciation for this band was shared by everyone as the host emcee yelled out “Where would we be without Railroad Earth?” to the adoring crowd. Once again the festival took a late-night turn toward the funk. Out of Brooklyn, New York, Turkuaz has earned a growing reputation in the funk/jam scene and fulfilled that with a groovin’ dance set that lasted more than two hours. The perfectly cool temperatures brought out the campground jams, as neighbors became friends and bandmates, and fiddles met guitar under the Ozarks’ moonlit sky.
Sunday showcased an afternoon set with Larry Keel doing a coveted “Larry Does Jerry” show. Keel always plays alongside his delightfully talented wife, Jenny Keel on bass, and recently Jared Poole on the mandolin. Pulling out old hits like “Catfish John” and “Russian Lullaby”, Keel also graced us with songs he wrote that were inspired by Jerry, like “Strugglin Man.” Larry payed homage to his roots with some of the best flatpicking guitar of the weekend. The Infamous Stringdusters had everyone on their feet again with yet another Dead cover “Big River.” They broke away from the more traditional bluegrass acts and abandoned their microphones for some athletic face-to-face jams. The set peaked with the Pink Floyd cover “Fearless,” a rarely covered song that steadily builds in energy, drawing the crowd in close for a raucous party. Once again, Railroad Earth graced us with their presence for the final Main Stage set of the evening. After four days of partying, the crowd still had it in them to stay on their feet and pay homage to the host band. They started the set with a perfectly placed “Everything Comes Together,” dedicated to events like this being possible. It was nothing but love as Railroad Earth and Deadhead Productions gave a toast to the crowd, welcoming them to the Hillberry family. They ended the toast by inviting everyone to stay as long as they want, an offer usually unheard at music festivals. Railroad came back on for a double encore of another great cover “Midnight Special” and an all too appropriate “Peace on Earth”.
As always, after a perfect ending to a perfect weekend, we sit back and have that time to reflect on what we just experience, what we just shared. All the pure moments that give us goosebumps and an engrained positive memory. The music brought us to “The Farm”, it brought a crowd of opened minded people to come and celebrate life. The music drew us in, but the people, the simple interactions and passing conversations will be what we reflect on the most. Making lifelong friends in a weekend, having inside jokes with complete strangers, gifting smiles and hugs, connecting us all in this web of life made up of little but none-the-less important moments. These included building a teepee as a team (3 times actually due to strong winds); meeting Holly the parrot, a staff’s friendly pet who seemed to have an extra liking for people with a beer in hand, hearing stories around the fire about the history of the Ozarks, and meeting the farmers that brought the real harvest in with an onsite farmers market from veggies grown “bout 15 minutes away or so.” It was the kind of place where you met members of the bands, talked life, love and music, or received a random hug from Elephant Revival (big shout out to them from The Poke Around). All these little fragments in time happened because we were all here unified, and though we had to part ways eventually, the pieces we leave behind will bring us back together to the Ozark Mountains.
Written by William Crowell
Photographed by Laura Guinessey